Seattle Now & Then: Seward Park, 1903

(click and click again to enlarge photos)

THEN: With Bailey Peninsula (later Seward Park) behind them, a trio looks west from the dock of the summer cottage of Tekla Nelson, widow of Nels Nelson (co-founder of downtown’s Frederick & Nelson department store, now Nordstrom), circa 1903, some 13 years before the water level dropped nine feet with the opening of the Lake Washington Ship Canal. On the far side of the dock and house, the water sometimes rose high enough to make the peninsula an island. (Courtesy Marilyn DeWitte and Rainier Valley Historical Society)
NOW: A cyclist skirts two leaders of the Wild Isle in the City project, author-researcher Paul Talbert (book in hand), president of Friends of Seward Park; and photographer-archivist Karen O’Brien (with dog, Buddy, hidden), president of the Rainier Valley Historical Society, as they pose on South Orcas Street near the park entrance. They will present an illustrated talk at 7 p.m. March 10 at Third Place Books, 5041 Wilson Ave. S. (Jean Sherrard)

(Published in the Seattle Times online on Feb. 27, 2020
and in the PacificNW Magazine print edition on March 1, 2020)

The future of a pristine peninsula through the eyes of the city
By Clay Eals

Playing outlaw Butch Cassidy in 1969, Paul Newman nonchalantly expressed one of my favorite movie maxims: “Boy, I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals.”

Of course, vision pertains as we struggle with today’s urban development maelstrom. But go back more than a century to when much of Seattle’s destiny was uncertain. Take South Seattle’s Bailey Peninsula, not yet known as city-owned Seward Park.

Many, indeed, wanted to take it – city government picturing it as a park in 1892, as did the famed Olmsted Brothers landscape consultants a decade later. Other interests touted it as a golf course, a stockade and a scout camp. It even was pronounced by a nearby land agent to be the “logical” site for our first world’s fair, the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. “The majority of the people of Seattle would like this location,” Columbia Realty claimed June 17, 1906, in an ad in The Seattle Times.

The fledgling fair quickly opted for the University of Washington, rejecting “beautiful” Bailey Peninsula as “badly isolated, and there is no positive assurance that the grounds can be had from the private owners.” The Pennsylvania-based Bailey family and owners of other smaller portions of the peninsula held out for a high price, and in 1911, four years after the land was annexed to Seattle, the city stuck to its vision. Leveraging condemnation and court proceedings, the city bought the parcel for a whopping $322,000.

Crucial to the pristine peninsula’s appeal was its size, nearly 200 acres. Instantly it became the city’s largest park. Boosters called it “a wonder of the West.” No surprise, then, that the city named it for statesman William H. Seward.

In 1867, as President Andrew Johnson’s secretary of state, Seward had purchased for the United States (from Russia) the enormous Alaska territory. A white expansionist, Seward drew native criticism near Ketchikan, but his endearment to Seattle grew after the late 1890s when the city exploded as the jumping-off point for the Gold Rush, which lured 100,000 prospectors through Alaskan ports.

Like a thumb penetrating Lake Washington, Seward Park always has embodied unusual geography. In early days during spring runoff, water covered its isthmus, and the peninsula became an island. But when the new Lake Washington Ship Canal dropped the lake level by nine feet in 1916, any future island status evaporated.

From planning to politics, from geology to greenery, emphasizing the beloved park’s diversity of uses and users, its story is told precisely and pictorially in the 336-page coffee-table book Wild Isle in the City: Tales from Seward Park’s First 100 Years, published last fall by Friends of Seward Park. Even read with bifocals, it’s clearly a validation of vision.


To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photo, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay Eals, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column.

Below are three additional photos plus 27 clippings from The Seattle Times online archive (available via Seattle Public Library) that, among others, were helpful in the preparation of this column. There’s also a bonus at the end. Enjoy!

The cover of Wild Isle in the City, which will be the subject of an illustrated talk at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 10, at Third Place Books Seward Park, 5041 Wilson Ave. S.
A 1913 south-facing view of the Nelson cottage, far in the distance. (Seattle Municipal Archives)
A portion of the 1908 Baist Map of Seattle showing then-privately owned Bailey Peninsula. (Courtesy Karen O’Brien)
Sept. 24, 1905, Seattle Times, page 20
May 27, 1906, Seattle Times, page 28
June 5, 1906, Seattle Times, page 4
June 17, 1906, Seattle Times, page 29
June 23, 1906, Seattle Times, page 2
Sept. 28, 1906, Seattle Times, page 10
Feb. 10, 1907, Seattle Times, page 8
April 8, 1909, Seattle Times, page 8
May 2, 1909, Seattle Times, page 14
May 15, 1910, Seattle Times, page 28
June 3, 1911, Seattle Times, page 16
June 4, 1911, Seattle Times, page 6
June 11, 1911, Seattle Times, page 6
Feb. 10, 1912, Seattle Times, page 5
March 3, 1912, Seattle Times, page 72
April 6, 1912, Seattle Times, page 3
Nov. 5, 1912, Seattle Times, page 7
July 13, 1913, Seattle Times, page 11
Aug. 12, 1913, Seattle Times, page 6
Aug. 15, 1915, Seattle Times, page 4
Aug. 22, 1915, Seattle Times, page 4
Sept. 23, 1915, Seattle Times, page 5
Jan. 14, 1917, Seattle Times, page 30
Jan. 28, 1917, Seattle Times, page 32
Oct. 27, 1917, Seattle Times, page 2
Jan. 5, 1919, Seattle Times, page 16
Jan. 5, 1919, Seattle Times, page 21
Nels and Tekla Nelson’s residence was in the Capitol Hill neighborhood best known by its “granite pile,” Broadway High School, seen here behind and to the right of the Nelson home. Most of the residences in this part of Capitol Hill have been replaced by apartments, and Broadway High (most of it) was razed for Seattle Community College.

(This column first appeared in Pacific magazine
of The Seattle Times on March 15, 1992.)

Nelson home on Boylston
By Paul Dorpat

Standing on his front lawn, Charles Whittelsey aimed his camera across Boylston Avenue toward Nels and Tekla Nelson’s home at the northeast comer of Olive and Boylston. The Nelsons’ was the most lavish residence on the block. Nels was C.D. Frederick’s partner in what was one of the Northwest’s largest mercantile establishments: Frederick and Nelson. Whittelsey, an accountant for the city’s water department, photographed this view in 1906.

The city directory lists the Nelsons at their new home at 1704 Boylston in 1901, the year construction began on Seattle High School (Broadway High). Whittelsey’s snapshot includes, behind and right of the Nelson home, a good glimpse of Broadway High’s western stone facade.

Born in Sweden in 1856, Nels Nelson crossed the Atlantic as a teenager. In the years before his arrival in Seattle, he farmed in Illinois, mined for gold and raised livestock in Colorado, and there met C.D. Frederick.  In 1891 Nelson visited Frederick in Seattle and stayed as his partner. The following year Nelson helped found the local Swedish Club and in 1895 he married Tekla, another Swedish immigrant.

Nelson was C.D. Frederick’s second partner. J.G. Mecham, his first, left their then still-mostly-used-furniture store soon after Nelson arrived with his $5,000 raised in Colorado on cattle. The three, however, remained friends. After Nelson died in 1907 on the Atlantic while returning from an unsuccessful attempt to renew his health at a Bavarian spa, Mecham remembered him as “truly one of God’s noblemen. With his passing I lost a valued friend.”

The Nelsons had three sons, but no grandchildren by them. In 1913 Tekla married Daniel Johanson, another Swedish immigrant, a mining engineer, fish wholesaler and ship builder. They lived in the Boylston home until Daniel died in 1919. Daniel and Tekla had two children of their own, Sylvia and Tekla Linnea, and ultimately one grandchild, Marilyn DeWitte, a Kirkland resident.

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